Accrediting institutional competence in elearning

Italian and European flags

Elearning is taking place in all universities and colleges to varying degrees. For many it is now a strategic priority but few institutions could honestly say that it is being rolled out across all courses systematically, and some have not yet even defined a common language for what elearning is.

Italian and European flags

Benchmarking and accreditation processes are emerging and can help institutions to assess where they are in relation to others and give pointers as to how they can increase their adoption of elearning. One such initiative is the UNIQUe (European University Quality in eLearning) programme which has developed a methodology for certifying institutional competence in elearning. I’ve spent the past couple of days at Università politecnica delle Marche as a peer assessor for an evaluation by UNIQUe.

After a series of semi-structured interviews with different groups of staff and students, examination of the elearning systems and a large number of espressos, my co-assessor Annemie Boonen and I now have a good picture of where this university is and what needs to be done to increase uptake. There are similar barriers to the adoption of elearning to those found in universities elsewhere such as lack of incentives for engagement by staff, whose career advancement is based on research output rather than excellence in facilitating elearning. This is exacerbated in Italy by a rigid legal system specifying the role of the professor, including aspects such as the number of contact hours they must have with students. With high teaching loads and the constant pressure to publish, innovation in teaching has to be crammed into the margins of academics’ time.

The UNIQUe methodology involves a self-assessment report, a two day visit by the peer-assessors, and a subsequent decision by the UNIQUe board as to whether to accredit the institution or not. The methodology examines institutional strategy, its commitment to innovation, its openness to the wider community, the elearning systems and resources, student and staff support, quality issues and management of IPR. While it’s easy to be cynical about the bureaucracy involved in such exercises and there is certainly scope to tweak the UNIQUe methodology, I now have no doubt of the value for an institution of a period of intensive navel-gazing and of receiving an external perspective on its efforts to embed elearning.